PHILADELPHIA — The popularization of tablets and smartphones have added yet another consideration for new parents. At what age is it appropriate for kids to start using these devices? According to a new study, babies aged one to two years old definitely shouldn’t be staring at screens too often. Researchers from Drexel University have found that screen time among babies, as well as less parent-child playtime and interaction, are associated with greater autism spectrum disorder-like symptoms (ASD) later on in childhood.
It can certainly be tempting for parents to position their babies and toddlers in front of a screen. It keeps the kids distracted while mom and dad are able to focus on something else. While that may be helpful in the short-term, it could have a detrimental effect on the child’s long-term development.
“The literature is rich with studies showing the benefits of parent-infant interaction on later child development, as well as the association of greater screen viewing with developmental delays,” says lead author Dr. Karen F. Heffler, a researcher in the university’s College of Medicine, in a university release. “Our study expands on this previous research by associating early social and screen media experiences with later ASD-like symptoms.”
Data on 2,152 children was used for this study. When each baby was brought to their local doctor for their 12-month and 18-month checkup, caregivers were asked how much time the child was spending in front of screens, as well as how often they played with the baby. Then, once the babies reached two years old the study’s authors followed up to see if these factors appeared to influence their risk of developing ASD or ASD-like symptoms. Two-year old toddlers are usually interested in interacting with other people, but those developing ASD-like symptoms are often much more shy.
Using the Modified Checklist for Autism in Toddlers (M-CHAT), and after accounting for other elements like gender, age, and maternal age, the research team found that screen time around the age of one year old was linked to 4% greater ASD-like symptoms. Additionally, babies who didn’t play with their parent on a daily basis showed 9% greater autism-like symptoms.
The American Academy of Pediatrics officially recommends that babies younger than 18 months old avoid all screen time besides the occasional video chat.
While prior research has suggested that 50-80% of a child’s autism risk is ultimately genetic, there is still much that modern medicine doesn’t understand about non-genetic autism risk factors.
“These findings strengthen our understanding of the importance of play time between parents and children relative to screen time,” comments senior author David S. Bennett, PhD, a professor of Psychiatry in the College of Medicine. “There is a great opportunity for public health campaigns and pediatricians to educate and empower parents to possibly minimize their child’s risk of ASD symptoms, which may include increasing social interaction and limiting screens at an early age.”
The study’s authors make it a point to emphasize that they didn’t find a connection between screen time and full on autism development, only greater autism-like symptoms. They believe further research should be conducted to refine their findings. More specifically, does screen time cause ASD-like symptoms, or are children predisposed to ASD more inclined to use these devices from an early age?
The study is published in JAMA Pediatrics.